One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.

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Thanks readers! I’m working my way through the popular science and lab lit you recommended

A little while back I asked you for your favorite novels featuring scientists, and your favorite popular science books that a scientist would like, and you came through in spades. Just a quick post to say thanks again for all the recommendations; I added a bunch of them to my Goodreads list and my wife got my some of them for Christmas!

So far I’ve read The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which as loyal reader Jeff Ollerton guessed was right up my alley. And All The Birds In The Sky, which is hard to describe. Cautionary scifi-fantasy mashup? Interesting, I liked it, but the Big Idea was too obvious for my taste. The characters worked as characters, but they had to do double-duty as The Engineering Worldview and The Left-wing Environmentalist Radical Worldview. I dunno, maybe I’d have found it more compelling if I was less of an optimist and thought that the world really was at risk of being destroyed by a war between those two worldviews.

I just started The Invention of Nature (good so far), and then after that is How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

So, what science-y reading did you get for the holiday?

#ibstucson – International Biogeography Society 2017 meeting

I returned this weekend from the IBS 2017 meeting in Tucson. It was a great meeting. The organizers moved it on fairly short notice from Brazil to Tucson due to concerns about Zika. This resulted in a lot of extra work for the organizers, but it didn’t show. It was a well-run meeting. And it was my favorite type of a meeting a few hundred people organized around a fairly specific topic.

I’m not going to repeat individual talks – check out the twitter feed for many great talks (#ibstucson). As is usual with me, such meetings inspire big-picture musings. This one probably more than most, since the last time I was able to attend IBS was the inaugural meeting in Mesquite Nevada in 2003. I noticed a lot of differences in the 14 year gap.

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Work at the times that work for you

A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.

That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.

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FYI: I (Jeremy Fox) am on leave until July 1 and unavailable for reviews (UPDATED)

Public service announcement: I’m on leave until July 1. I’m working on a book. I’m not doing any reviews during this time. I’m announcing this here in the hopes that it’s an efficient way to alert lots of editors. I don’t like having to reply individually to every review request I get if I’m just going to decline them all. And it’s a pain to have to log into every journal’s editorial manager system and change my availability status.

Posts will continue as usual-ish, because I’ll be trying to use the blog to help me write the book. But I might be posting a bit less.

UPDATE: Since this came up in the comments, I should note that no, I’m not shirking my obligations to the peer review system by taking a 6-month break from reviewing. As I’ve written in the past, I believe each of us has an obligation to do at least as many reviews as we receive (unless you can’t do so due to lack of sufficient invitations to review). Since starting my postdoc, I’ve always done more than 2 reviews for every ms I submit or co-author (counting rejected and resubmitted mss as new ones, obviously), and in any given calendar year the ratio is usually more like 3:1 or 4:1. I’m going to return to that practice after my sabbatical. So I think it’s fine for me to submit a few papers in the next 6 months without doing any reviews, because on a longer-term basis I’m fulfilling my professional obligations to the “peer review commons”.

Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about mentoring plans and individual development plans (IDPs), and always thought they sounded like they could be worth trying some time. But I never made it a high priority, and so never actually got to doing them with my lab. I got as far as starting to do an IDP for myself to test it out, but never got further than that. Then, last year, I had to do a mentoring plan with one of my students, as a requirement of her graduate program. As soon as I did that one with her, I realized I needed to be doing these with everyone in my lab, including grad students, postdocs, technicians, and undergrads. Here, I’ll describe what we include in our mentoring plans, talk about some of the ways they’ve been helpful, and will ask for ideas on some things I’d like to add or change.

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